June 18, 2024

A store shelf full of sugary cereals. New FDA nutrition label rules will mean some of these products lose the "healthy" label.

Photo: Sheila Fitzgerald (Shutterstock)

A major change in how foods are labeled in the U.S. is about to arrive. The Food and Drug Administration has proposed stricter limits on what can be advertised as a “healthy” food—limits that are set to exclude many products that met the previous criteria. But what is this new criteria, and how could the labeling update affect some of your favorite foods?

The meat and potatoes of the new FDA labeling rules

In September 2022, the FDA unveiled proposed changes for calling a food “healthy” on its product labeling. Under the new rules, a food could only carry a claim of being healthy if it meets two criteria.

The first is that it has to mostly contain at least one of the food groups recommended by the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, such as dairy, fruits, and whole grains. Secondly, the product can only have a certain amount of these specific nutrients: saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.

In some ways, the new definition would expand the list of things that can be called healthy. Water, avocados, and higher-fat fish like salmon are all products that currently don’t meet the labeling requirements but would under the new ones, according to the FDA. Raw whole fruits and vegetables in general would also automatically be considered healthy. At the same time, many other previously “healthy” products would no longer meet this standard as currently made, including white bread and highly sweetened cereals and yogurts.

As an example, a healthy serving of cereal would need to contain 0.75 ounces of whole grains and contain no more than 1 gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium, and 2.5 grams of added sugars.

Why are some people mad at the FDA?

The FDA’s previous requirements for healthy labeling have gotten their fair share of criticism, particularly in how they maligned fats in general, no matter the source (which is why nut products didn’t count as healthy until recently). The new criteria seems to have accounted for some of these blind spots. But some food companies and lobbyists are now upset at the FDA over its new inclusion of added sugars as something to avoid if they still want their products to be called healthy.

Grain and cereal makers in particular are incensed by the realization that most of their products, including popular brands like Raisin Bran, would be too sugary to get the claim from now on. There are also many frozen and packaged food and even pickle companies mad at the FDA for its strict limits on sugar and sodium, according to a recent report from STAT News.

In the press or in their comments to the FDA following the announcement (a common part of the process for any new rule change from a federal agency), these companies have taken varying approaches to opposing the changes. Some have said that foods containing healthy food groups should be given more leeway on having these other nutrients; others have also claimed that their products would “be alienating” customers if they had to change their formula to meet the new criteria; and still others have disputed the overall science tying added sugar to poorer health (which does seem pretty sturdy).

Conversely, consumer and health advocacy groups like the American Heart Association have largely lauded the new rules, according to STAT News, and others such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest have called for the FDA to go even further in its labeling changes.

What will the nutrition label changes mean for me?

This is all about voluntary labeling. If companies want their foods to be called healthy, then they’ll have to meet the final version of these new criteria, whatever it ends up being. But they can still sell their products as is, without the “healthy” label, if they don’t want to make any alterations at all.

Relative to other countries, the U.S. is still taking a more hands-off approach. Countries like Chile, Ecuador, and Mexico have all implemented front-of-package warning labels on foods deemed to be too high in sodium, sugar, and saturated fats, and more are joining them. The World Health Organization has supported these labels, citing evidence that they can indeed make people less likely to eat these products and/or change companies’ formulation of them.

But the FDA’s rule changes could still cause a noticeable ripple across the food industry. By the agency’s estimation, around 5% of packaged foods are called healthy today, and they expect that perhaps only 4% might still carry that label once updated. Some companies may try to debut new or tweaked products that meet these standards, but others might try to adopt new marketing strategies that simply imply their foods are “healthy” without stating it outright, which would likely meet resistance from public health groups. The FDA is also launching research this year testing out color-coded labels for whether products contain too much sugar, sodium, or saturated fats, so the labeling wars are far from over.

The FDA extended the period for public comments on the proposed new rules to mid-February this year, so its final decision is likely still some time away. Last December, the agency also stated that any food labeling regulations adopted over the next two years would not be implemented until 2026 at the earliest.

But while the debate over what makes any particular food healthy may rage on for years, one thing is clear: The typical American isn’t eating a healthy diet overall. Per the FDA, around 75% of Americans don’t get enough vegetables, fruits, and dairy, and around 60% to 90% are getting too much sugar, sodium, and saturated fats.

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